29 May 2010
A rising star of international comedy performance talks to Joe McConnell about her craft
Maysoon Zayid is a Palestinian-American comedy performer gaining increasing attention and respect for her ability to use comedy to tackle serious social and political issues without trivialising them. She is co-founder of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival which has just completed its seventh year.
Maysoon is currently in Qatar where she is filming and participating in The Doha Debates (on freedom of speech in the Middle East). DAO is grateful that she agreed to a quick e-mail interview for in the midst of her hectic schedule.
Can you tell us something about your journey as an artist?
I started dancing school at the age of 5, and I wanted be a dancer but that was unrealistic. So I decided to become a soap actress instead, which obviously led me to stand up comedy.
Has disability impacted upon your craft?
Yes, most definitely. My disability has impacted my craft. But also, my craft has greatly impacted my disability. I wanted to be an actress, but no one in Hollywood or New York was hiring disabled, ethnic, fluffy chicks.
So I thought of people who had made it, like Whoopi Goldberg, Geri Jewell, and Rosie O’Donnell-they all got their start doing stand-up. And so I decided to give it a shot. And it took off.
I knew from my first set that I had to immediately address the disability or else the audience would be confused, and rather than pay attention to the jokes they’d be trying to figure out what the heck was wrong with me. So from day one, I made sure to somehow work CP into my opening joke. That being said, before I started doing comedy I never talked about being disabled. And I found being able to make fun of it has really empowered me and inspired me to work for the disabled community.
What are your current / future projects?
We just completed the seventh annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival, and it was crazy. It was our biggest festival ever. We sold almost 2,000 tickets and I got to perform in the first ever Arabic Stand Up show in US history.
We also featured over 50 Arab American comics, actors and writers. Dean Obeidallah, my co-founder, and I never knew we’d make it to seven years. But I’m pretty proud that the Arab American community as well as our non-Arab New York audiences have embraced the festival.
When we started we had a goal of creating a positive image of Arab Americans, but also of getting Hollywood to take notice of the immense talent of the Arab American community. Maybe someone should start a disabled comedy festival because we’re under-represented too. But I’m too busy because I’m heading to Doha to film the Doha debates for BBC and then going on the Arabs Gone Wild Tour with Dean Obeidallah and Aron Kader. And of course there is Maysoon’s Kids, my scholarship and wellness program for disabled and orphaned refugee children. And I have a movie in development.
What are your hopes for the Middle East?
I hope that women take over as soon as humanly possible. And that there is freedom of religion, movement and fashion.
Any advice for young disabled people wanting to get into comedy/performance?
You have to be ten times better than the able-bodied person auditioning next to you because no one wants to hire you, so get over it, and get really good at what you do. And don’t be afraid of failing, cause what’s the big deal? It’s just comedy, not surgery. I mean you can’t kill anyone. If they don’t laugh this time you’ll get them next time.
Do you know any other disabled performers?
Yeah of course I do. I know an amazing blind actress named Pamela Sabaugh. Also Josh Blu, and Lawrence Carter-Long. But I’d like to know more.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I plan to become the Arab Oprah and scream “Free Palestine!” when I win my Oscar. And probably "F*** You Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot!”